Joe tucks his fingers under the pommel of the saddle, the reins resting freely on Music’s neck, as she picks her way through the collection of saplings that dot the gap. Her large dappled ears flick, backwards and forwards, as Joe whistles the rebellious tune, The Wearing of the Green.
As he edges Music along the pebbled bank of Reedy Creek, the excited shouts of Chinese miners resound, as horse and rider near the town of Sebastopol. Nearing the Chinese huts, the sweet aroma of rice greets him, as it wafts from one of the huts open windows. Like his fondness for the bliss of opium, rice had also become his weakness. Margret frowned on Joe’s taste for the sticky white grains. When he’d returned home, one afternoon, with a china bowl and a set of chopsticks she had been appalled. “You’ll turn into one of those yellow fellows if you keep eating like them”, she berated.
Joe laughs at the memory, as his vision catches on several Chinese miners who splash in the creek, washing their hands in the tawny water.
One of the miners looks up as Joe passes, “Ah Joe,” he bows, “is good seeing you back in Woolshed Valley.”
Joe touches his hat briefly, “mhgoi” he replies, thanking the Chinaman in his own native language.
Crossing Reedy Creek, Joe allows Music to drop her head and drink. The bit rattles in her mouth as she skims her lips over the surface, clearing the debris that settles, before thirstily slurping the water.
“Nearly home, old girl.” He whispers, his hand stroking through her white mane.
As the Byrne homestead comes into view, Joe sighs, and removes his feet from the stirrups, allowing his legs to stretch down around the girth. Along the border of post and rail fencing, bunches of blue and white irises mark the perimeter of garden. Several sheep graze amongst the apple trees, which are laden with fruit. Joe’s mind flicks back to the Kelly shack, shaking his head at the stark contrast.
Joe dismounts and leads Music into the stable. From the next stall, Paddy’s dun mare, Orlagh, nickers as Music enters her box. Undoing the throatlatch, he pulls the headpiece down over her ears, the bit falling freely from her mouth. Lifting the saddle flap, Joe loosens the girth, letting it fall open, and removes the saddle and blanket; hanging them over the stall door. Joe takes a dandy brush from the wooden tack box, and sweeps it over the sweaty saddle mark on her back.
Scooping lucerne chaff from a hessian bag, Joe places it into an old copper laundry basin and sprinkles the green shards with a handful of oats. Leaning over the wide door, Joe places the basin in Music’s stall, leaving her to chomp the feed hungrily.
As Joe makes his way toward the homestead, Paddy appears from one of the outbuildings, calling his name. Joe turns, and watches, as his younger brother runs toward him.
“Ah, young Patsy.” Joe smiles.
“You’re wanted by Aaron.” Paddy replies, breathlessly, his face veiled with concern.
Joe’s brow furrows, “Wanted for what exactly?”
“Couldn’t tell you…” Paddy pauses and gestures toward Byrnes Gully, “but he’s waiting under London Rock. Reckons you and him have something to settle.”
“Does he now?” Joe’s eyes narrow, as he looks toward the granite boulders that shape the gully.
The thick covering of twigs crack, sharply, beneath his larrikin heels as Joe moves along the rocky track of the gully. As he climbs the granite shelf, his eyes fall on Aaron, who rests under the shade of jagged rock, his porkpie hat pulled low over his hazel eyes.
“You wanted me?” Joe calls, as a sun seeking lizard darts around his boots.
“Did I?” Aaron sneers, twisting against the smooth granite.
Joe moves closer to his mate, clutching a fist around the lapels of Aarons jacket. “If you’ve got something to say to me Sherritt, then bloody say it.”
Aaron springs excitedly to his feet, “You scrapped me for that effing kid Joe!” He spits, “I’ve always known you were a queer bastard!”
Joe shoves him angrily against the boulder, his knuckles white as he grips Aaron’s dirty collar. “What did you just say?”
“You effing heard me!” Aaron growls, his breath reeking of cheap brandy.
Joe’s jaw quivers with rage as he draws his fist back, before slamming it against Aaron’s half open mouth.
“You bastard!” Aaron slurs, as his top lip begins to swell and bleed.
“You’ll think twice next time, before you try and degrade me.” Joe snarls.
Reefing an arm back, Aaron snaps a dying branch of gum and swings it violently at Joe, cutting him across his ear.
Joe curses in pain, as a sticky trail of crimson streams down his sideburns.
As Aaron levels the weapon a second time, Joe grasps the length of branch, his knee rising sharply into Aaron’s stomach.
“You cowardly dog!” Aaron gasps, keeling over, “You effing kicked me in the balls!”
Joe takes a handkerchief from his breast pocket, and scrunches it, firmly, against his wounded ear, “You lying beggar, there’s no way that blow got anywhere near them.”
Aaron looks up, his dark hair ruffled over his eyes, “We effing even then?”
“If I won, we are.” Joe taunts.
“You’re lucky I ain’t feeling myself today, Byrne.” Aaron scowls, gripping his stomach.
Joe rolls his eyes and looks up through the limbs of macrocarpa, to the darkening sky above. Maggie would be expecting him. “I better be heading up to the Vine, you coming for a drink?”
“I’ve had enough of the bleeding Vine.” Aaron replies sharply, “Let’s go down to the diggings, me mate’s got a shanty along there. You can keep that donah of yours warm anytime.”
“This shanty had better be bloody worth the walk, Aaron”. Joe grumbles, as the pair make their way along the Woolshed diggings.
“Mick’s me mate. I ain’t offending him by splashing me coin around someplace else.” Aaron replies over his shoulder.
As they approach the bark hut, a group of roughly clad miners stand around a fire pit, their hands extended over the flames.
Joe follows Aaron through the narrow doorway and into the gloom of the hut, his eyes widening as they fall on a tall, mangy looking fellow, who stands behind the bar.
“Aaron, my dear chap!” He calls, through a patchy partition of moustache.
Aaron tips his hat flashily, “Mick, this here’s me affectionate brother Joseph Byrne, pour us a couple of whiskies would you.”
The barman smiles widely at Joe, revealing an array of rotting and broken teeth.
Joe watches, as Mick fumbles around for the two cleanest glasses he can find, and sploshes the amber liquid into them. He slides them across the rough bar, as Aaron digs in his pocket for the appropriate coin.
Joe picks up one of the glasses, and holds it against the candle light, crinkling his nose as his eyes rest on the dirty smudges that cover the rim.
“Just effing drink it!” Aaron hisses, elbowing Joe in the ribs.
Joe knocks back the whiskey in a single swig, cringing at the spirits suspicious sourness.
“You lads been roughed up?” The barman motions to Joe’s bloody ear, and Aaron’s swollen lip.
“We had a disagreement, aye, but we sorted it out like men.” Joe replies, trying to avert his gaze from the swollen carbuncle that juts from Mick’s neck.
Joe turns against the bar, and scans the raggedy crowd that packs the shanty’s walls.
Beside him, Aaron calls for two more whiskies, motioning toward Joe, but he shakes his head.
“I need to relieve myself first.” Joe mutters, turning from the bar.
He walks down the dimly lit passageway, and steps out into the night. The evening air is cool against his whiskey flushed cheeks, as he moves along the slab wall of the hut.
As Joe begins to button up his trousers, his ears catch on a low murmuring coming from the side of the shanty. Curious, Joe peeks his head around, his blue eyes falling on a heavily bearded prospector, whose back leans against the wall, the figure of a younger man, half consumed in shadow, kneels in front of him.
Horrified, his eyes flick back to the older man, who stares back at Joe, his mouth peeling open, exposing his teeth in the moonlight.
Joe spits his disgust on the ground and rushes back into the shanty, nearly tripping over the doorstep as his larrikin heels clatter up the hall.
Joe’s hand roughly grabs at Aaron’s arm, as he leans, lazily, against the bar.
“We…We’ve gotta effing get out of here now.” Joe splutters.
Aaron shakes him off, “I ain’t finished me damn drink Joe.”
“We have to go now, Aaron!” Joe’s voice cuts through the room.
“What the bloody hell is going on?” Aaron shouts behind him.
Joe chokes on the vision, “A bunch of…of … Sodomites!”
Aaron grasps his shoulder, “Joe, what do you mean? What happened?”
Joe closes his eyes, “There was a couple of men around the back there…It…It were bloody unnatural. I need an effing smoke.”
As Joe and Aaron enter the opium den, Ah Lim greets them with outstretched arms, “Ah Joe, Ah Jim.” He smiles, ushering them further into the den…
Joe lies on the thin rug, making himself comfortable, as the spirit lamp is lit. Taking a small ball of the dark opium paste, he holds it over the flickering flame of the terracotta lamp. Once the opium is golden, he pushes the bud through the bowl of the pipe and inhales deeply, allowing himself to feel the bliss of release…